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Learning Pods - Reimagining Education During COVID-19

COVID-19 has been a game-changer for most of us. For some, it means working from home, socially distancing, and dealing with some other annoying inconveniences. For others, it means the devastating loss of their livelihood. However, for many children, the consequences could be even more dire as it could affect the outcome of the rest of their lives. Education is often the path to opportunity, but many students struggle with remote learning and are falling further behind. While significant educational inequities already existed, disparities have become even more pronounced during the pandemic. A lack of resources and time has put many lower-income parents in an untenable position of choosing between going to work on the front-line or possibly sacrificing their job to help their kids with their education. Unfortunately, it’s a no-win situation.

Recently, Dr. Rashaan Harris, CEO of Citizens Committee NYC, brought together a panel to discuss how educators, parents, businesses, and non-profits could band together to get lower-income students back on track through hyperlocal education initiatives. One promising option is a pilot “learning pod” program in the Bronx spearheaded through a collaboration between The Siegel Family Endowment and Ben Samuels-Kalow, the Principle and Founder of public charter school Creo College Prep.

The term “pods” came from “pandemic pods” started by some affluent families shortly after the arrival of COVID. Parents worried that remote learning might be diminishing certain educational benefits for their children, including a lack of social interaction and less personalized attention. So, they began coordinating with other parents to hire private tutors to teach small groups of children within a supervised home environment. However, as only families with the necessary financial resources could afford the most qualified private teachers or tutors, the pod idea was labeled “elitist." Now the Siegel Family Endowment pilot has launched to determine if learning pods can help all children and not just a select few. In the discussion hosted by Dr. Harris, specific foundational components were identified as requirements to make pods work on a broader scale. BCT Partners explores three of the most critical:

1. Allocating assets efficiently:

As Dr. Harris noted at the start of the panel, “Coordination is one of the key problems. You have resources stock-piled in one area and other areas with no resources at all. The things that prevent those resources from getting where they are needed is lack of information, lack of communication, and lack of coordination." BCT Partners has been pioneering a way to address this challenge. They have used their proprietary Equitable Impact Platform (EquIP) to develop an asset resource allocation model. The model is designed to identify resources within a community, match them to residents' needs within the community, and then align investment to optimize those resources. While it may seem like a simple premise, the machine learning and analysis behind it is robust. Using a combination of data sets from the Census Bureau and IRS for non-profits and analyzing dollar flows and programmatic investments, BCT Partners can match resources and assets to the areas that need them the most.

2. Determining participants and identifying physical locations:

While many children need additional support while learning remotely, that is not the case for all children. Some kids thrive in this environment because they have parents at home that can provide a nurturing and calm environment or because they enjoy working independently. Therefore, it was crucial to determine the students that would benefit the most from learning pods. Creo College Prep did a needs assessment to identify students that did not have a conducive home environment for remote learning. They also considered the ideal pod sizes based on student’s neighborhood proximity to each other and the physical accommodations that were available nearby. While they could do this process manually because it involved one school, it would require machine learning such as the EquIP Platform to optimize the process on a much larger scale.

3. In-person supervision of pods

It was determined that to scale this project as well as meet local guidelines, virtual teaching in some capacity would have to continue for the foreseeable future. However, to ensure the students' best chance of success, they needed someone physically there to ensure they got the additional emotional support and personalized attention they needed. The concept of pod supervisors was born. For this initial pilot, CUNY students originally from the Bronx or affiliated with the Creo Prep School volunteered to become the pilot's supervisors. Some, but not all, are studying to be future educators. Contributing to students' success in neighborhoods gave the CUNY students a greater sense of purpose and accomplishment in participating in the program.

In summary, this pilot is teaching essential lessons beyond the classroom. It’s illustrating that communities and neighborhoods matter, and when local stakeholders come together, they can make a massive impact on building more equitable outcomes. As Dr. Harris so eloquently stated, “To make our society and our country sustainable, you can't have all the resources in one area and none in the other because we are all ultimately connected whether we realize it or not. When you have enormous disparities, it threatens our ability to sustain our way of life, to sustain our prosperity as a neighborhood, as a city, as a state, and as a country.”

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